It’s safe to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to be one of, if not the most, successful and recognizable entertainment franchises in history. From the beginning of Phase 1 of The Infinity Saga up until the most recent films and shows in The Multiverse Saga, Marvel is a force to be reckoned with. The band of superheroes we know as the Avengers are played by some equally iconic actors. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man? Chris Evans’ Captain America? No one can honestly imagine it any other way. Casting a Marvel superhero is a difficult process to get right. However, more often than not, Marvel has got their casting choices down to a science.
Update August 17, 2023: This article has been updated with even more information regarding why The Hulk was recast in the MCU.
2008’s The Incredible Hulk is an often forgotten pre-Phase 1 project. In fact, it is hard for fans to recall a Bruce Banner that is not played by Mark Ruffalo. Instead, it was Edward Norton who played Hulk in the 2008 action film. When it came time to make the first Avengers movie, Marvel decided to go in a different direction, away from Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner, making way for Ruffalo to enter the MCU. Of course, the question remains: why? We detail why Ruffalo replaced Norton as The Hulk in this article.
Hulk in Marvel Comics
Who is The Hulk? Well, The Incredible Hulk is one of the most iconic superheroes in Marvel Comics, and the long history that the character has in the comic books makes for some great source material for the movies. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character premiered in 1962’s The Incredible Hulk #1. Bruce Banner is a soft-spoken scientist who is forever altered by intense exposure to gamma radiation. The Hulk comes out when Dr. Banner becomes angry, and, in any situation, that is a recipe for disaster and establishes a great blueprint for a complex and intriguing character for audiences to fall in love with.
The most famous live-action attempt at the Hulk was a television series that ran from 1978 to 1982 on CBS titled The Incredible Hulk. It starred Bill Bixby as Banner, this time named David instead of Bruce, and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. In 2003 a big-budget film attempt was made by director Ang Lee with Hulk. The movie was highly anticipated, but the reaction was mixed at the time, leaning more toward the negative. It saw a massive drop off in its second weekend and became one of the biggest disappointments that summer.
Plans for a direct sequel were canceled, and when Marvel Studios started up as their own independent studio, they decided to finance a new Hulk film to be part of their planned franchise. Eric Bana played the Hulk in the 2003 film but decided to go in a new direction so as to not off-put audiences who did not like the previous film. Enter Edward Norton.
Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk And Behind The Scenes Conflict
Norton was cast in 2007 to play Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. Not only was Norton brought on to play the character, but the actor also did some rewrites on the script. He also was expected to have a certain amount of creative control over the film. Norton had a history of taking control of projects, most notably on American History X, where the director removed his name from the film. Marvel Studios seemed more than willing to oblige because they were a new start-up studio, and casting an actor as acclaimed as Edward Norton likely brought an air of prestige to the new film.
Yet when it came time to edit the film, problems started to emerge. Marvel Studios notably wanted a more action-based film, and one that was less than two hours due to the long run time and lack of action was a major criticism of Ang Lee’s Hulk. Norton and director Louis Leterrier clashed with Marvel Studios regarding the runtime. About 70 minutes of footage was cut from the film, much of being character-centric scenes with Bruce Banner, Betty Ross, and Doctor Leonard Samson (a scene which can still be seen in the film’s trailer).
Another major scene that was cut was an opening prologue where Bruce Banner goes to the Artic to commit suicide, only for the Hulk to stop him. The scene was deemed too dark, although it was later referenced in The Avengers despite being cut from the finished film. The scene also would have seen The Hulk smash the ice, sending a piece flying at the camera that would show Captain America’s shield and setting up his upcoming film.
While some of the footage was later cut together for the film’s title design, it frustrated Norton to see so much of his hard work taken out. Despite Norton reportedly rewriting the script every day on set and adding the flower research scene, and cutting characters like Rick Jones, the WGA decided to give Zak Penn full screenwriting credit. This left Norton angry and frustrated with the entire Marvel Studios process. This left many to wonder if he would return for the planned Avengers film.
Norton’s Hulk: Not The Right Fit
Anticipation for The Avengers was high. The casting had to be right. By 2010, in addition to Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, fans knew that up-and-coming star Chris Hemsworth would be Thor and previous Fantastic Four actor Chris Evans would be Captain America. Yet it was up in the air if Edward Norton would return as The Hulk following his very public battle with Marvel Studios.
It is commonly known among audiences that the reason for this, per Cinema Blend, is that Norton just did not fit the kind of movie Marvel Studios ultimately intended to make. However, a recast as big as this one cannot go on without some drama. Kevin Feige claimed that they recast the Hulk to find someone who worked well with the cast and was excited to fill the role. Well, per Heroic Hollywood, Norton’s team was not happy about the implications this kind of statement has on Norton as an actor. Norton’s managers claim that Feige’s words were misleading and defamatory toward Norton’s work ethic and passion for the role. For the audience, the truth about this will likely never be known for sure. One thing was for certain, The Avengers needed a new Hulk.
Ruffalo’s Debut: The Avengers (2012)
At Comic-Con 2010, the cast of The Avengers was announced. Everyone was waiting to see if Marvel would bring Edward Norton out on stage or if the part would be recast. Finally, it was confirmed that Mark Ruffalo would play Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk, in The Avengers. Ruffallo had previously worked with Robert Downey Jr. on Zodiac, so the duo already had chemistry. Notably, The Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier later revealed Ruffalo was his top choice to play the Hulk, but Marvel wanted a bigger name.
Since his introduction in The Avengers, Ruffalo has been a fan favorite as The Hulk. It seemed after so many attempts, Marvel finally got the Hulk down. Since then, he has cameoed in mid-credit scenes for Iron Man 3, Captain Marvel, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame as well as the series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Ruffalo seems to love playing the Hulk and will hopefully continue for years to come.
Can Norton Make a Comeback?
The odds that Norton would ever return as the Hulk seemed to disappear with Ruffalo’s casting. However, with the new phase of the franchise focusing heavily on the multiverse, where endless variations of the characters exist at once, the opportunity for a return seems more likely than ever. In fact, whispers about Norton’s return to the role have been circulating, and while nothing has come of it yet, the writers of She-Hulk and What If…? have at least played around with the idea. Of course, if the bridge between the actor and Marvel has been burnt so this seems unlikely.
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